With a digital pre-event centered around CEO of the Aruba Tourism Authority Ms. Ronella Croes, a first step was taken towards the St. Maarten Innovations, Initiatives, and Industries Link-Up Event (SMILE) 2022. The SMILE event focuses on innovation and sustainability, while connecting Caribbean companies and NGOs and those from beyond.

Ms. Croes was invited, as her organization is considered a global best practice of public-private cooperation, making the ATA a uniquely successful marketing agency. As per the core themes of the SMILE event series, Ms. Croes elaborated on actions ATA is currently taking pertaining to innovation and sustainability. She addressed how she sees the post-covid (tourism) economy and ATA’s view on this unique timeperiod.

The ATA CEO provided a context of how the travel industry witnesses the rapidly changing needs of a new era of traveler, much aware of social, economic, environmental and health issues of its destination of choice.  Digital innovations will play an increasing intermediate role in this changing context and has the focus of the Aruban agency.

Making it a different entity than most tourism bureaus, the ATA was founded on January 1st, 2011 as the “Aruba Tourism Authority Sui Generis” or an independent semi-governmental organization with a partially private sector board. The independence of the ATA allows for a long-term sustainable marketing formula, giving back to the destination in the process. Ms. Croes stated how this provides the capacity of swift adaptation to changing circumstances: “Our agility allows for swift movement in an increasingly competitive tourism market.”

Agility is safeguarded in ATA’s key objectives of facilitation of entrepreneurship, a focus on digital development, research and intelligence, awareness of the importance of the tourism industry amongst youth and the community at large. Other key objectives are amongst others facilitating beach quality, hospitality and safety as core assets, facilitation of natural preservation and keeping an eye on balanced tourism (carrying capacity).

Over time, the organization developed in 2014 from a “destination marketing agency” to a “destination marketing and management agency”. Its goals are put down in a multi-annual strategy. Amongst others, the ATA also involves itself in the management of a crisis fund in case of threats to the tourism industry, currently in use for dealing with the effects of the global Covid19 pandemic.

After her speech, a panel led by well known St. Maarten entrepreneur John Sandiford discussed what could be learnt from ATA by the region and beyond, and what else could be said pertaining to rebuilding economies successfully in the wake of the pandemic. The panel consisted of Ms. Dyane Vis Escalona (ATA), Mr. Jude Houston (Director, St. Maarten Chamber of Commerce and Industry), Mr. Paul Henriquez (President, St. Maarten Hospitality & Trade Association), Mr. Francio Guadeloupe (Professor of Anthropology, University of Amsterdam), Mr. Ronald Vermeeren (Caribbean liaison Netherlands Enterprise Agency) and Mr. Egon Sybrandy (Director of Opportunities, ShowMe Caribbean).

Panelists underlined the importance of cooperation; seeing how this gives a solid foundation to ATA from a marketing perspective. Mr. Guadeloupe and Mr. Houston stressed the importance of collaboration from a broader societal perspective regarding the economic rebuilding of the tourism dependent region.

Both the eighty participants and panelists were also able to ask questions to the ATA representatives. Amongst the registrants were interested professionals from Anguilla, Aruba, Belgium, Canada, Curacao, Dominica, Estonia, French St. Martin, Germany, Greece, Haiti, the Netherlands, Saba, St. Maarten, Trinidad and the United States. From St. Maarten, delegates from private sector, business associations, government owned companies and government (agencies) took part.

“SMILE” was founded in 2018 with the goal to  highlight innovation and sustainability best practices, in the process connecting companies from both hospitality and trade as well as NGOs from the region. The 2022 event is scheduled for March 25th – 26th.  At the meeting, the new website smilesintmaarten.com was opened where future pre-events and developments will be listed. A regional call went out for inspiring best practices in innovation and sustainability to be highlighted at the event.

The SMILE event is an initiative of the St. Maarten Hospitality & Trade Association, 360° of Innovation (Aruba) and Antonio Media (St Maarten / the Netherlands). It is supported by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (St Maarten), University St Martin and ShowMe Caribbean (Curacao). People interested in participating in the event or to remain aware of developments, travel arrangements or future speakers can subscribe to the SMILE newsletter via events@shta.com.

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